Diasec mounted Latex jet print on Kodak
320 × 245 cm
In 2011, Ahmed started a series of deliberately experimental journeys across, around, and within Mecca. The epic project documented the unofficial histories of the most important site in the Muslim world.
Across hundreds of photographs and films, Desert of Pharan documents the rapid development of Islam’s holiest city, a place in a state of constant transformation. Ahmed focuses his lens on the shifting urban environment, as well as the lives lived amid the tumult. The title is taken from the ancient name for Mecca, or the wilderness and mountains surrounding it – the Desert of Paran, or Wilderness of Paran, mentioned in the Old Testament.
The project maps the tension between public and private space. While Mecca is home to more than a million residents, it is being transformed to cater to the needs of millions more pilgrims and tourists. Existing models of urban development have been implemented on a vast scale. Equipped with imported financial and development know-how, Mecca is attempting a transformation in order to adapt to the geopolitical, technological, environmental, geomorphological and religious context in which it exists.
In the city of Mecca, a new future is being drawn up. Its contours are becoming visible amidst a landscape teeming with initiatives – from the most public to the most private – aimed at developing and reinventing seemingly fixed rituals, states and assumptions; culminating, perhaps, in the re-imagining of life at the centre of the Islamic world.
This body of work asks: Is public space in the Islamic city becoming a luxury item? Is the courtyard becoming a commercial?
Acquiring the necessary photographic equipment was fundamental to my project. I had all these shades and layers of Mecca in mind as I put the system together, thinking about the scale, angles, and conditions within which I would have to shoot to convey the plurality of the city. In a sort of scavenger hunt, parts were acquired from all over the world. After this international search, I found the best camera I could have imagined: one that the Saudi Binladin Group acquired in the 1970s to take photographs of its construction projects in Mecca. It had never been used, and it felt so fitting to use it to shoot the city it was intended for, to reclaim something that had lain dormant for almost forty years and apply it to this task. But there was a difference: I was shooting to map, trace, and document stories; the Saudi Binladin Group would have used the equipment to map and document the physical reality of the place. Ahmed Mater2018
Like few other cities on earth, Mecca seems to buckle under the weight of its own dramatic symbolism. Mecca is rarely seen as a living city with its own inhabitants and historical development. Instead, it is almost exclusively seen as a site of pilgrimage, as a timeless, emblematic city.